Word Study #160 — Revenge, Avenge, Vengeance

We saw in the previous posting how a flagrant error in the translation of paideuo has resulted in an incorrect focus on punishment, where the actual intent of several passages is actually education or training. A similar error has caused similar results, when one considers the common rendering of ekdikeo, ekdikesis, and ekdikos as “avenge, revenge, or vengeance” in spite of the fact that three out of the four lexical definitions deal with the vindication of a wronged person (or God himself) by an act of legal justice or remedy; the formulation of a verdict (either positive or negative) by a court of law; and the noun form’s application to any legal advocate, whether of defense or prosecution.

None of these words appear frequently in the New Testament.
Ekdikesis (6x) is traditionally translated “revenge” once (II Cor.:11), “punishment” once (I Pet.2:14), and “vengeance” 4x (Lk.21:22, Rom.12:19, II Thes.1:8, Heb.10:30).
Ekdikeo (also used 6x) appears once as “revenge” (II Cor.10:6) and 5x “avenge” (Lk.18:3,5; Rom.12:19, Rv.6:10, 19:2).
Ekdikos occurs only twice: once as “avenger” (I Thes.4:6) and once as “revenger” (Rom.13:4).

Revisit each of these passages, deliberately avoiding your normal assumption of vindictiveness, and imagine how you would read them if you assumed only the administration of justice, rather than retaliation. This is especially noteworthy if you consider the context – for example, II Thes.1:5-10, where the real burden of the message is one of justice for the faithful who have been mightily abused.
You might also find it useful to refer to the studies on justice (#3) and judgment (#9,10), where we also found it necessary to challenge the automatic presumption of a negative tone. Try to realize that one’s assessment of the nature of any of these situations will depend entirely upon his choice of with which side he has decided to identify!
The same situation is true of the un-prefixed form, dike, which appears only three times. Especially instructive is the description of Paul’s experience with the snake bite at the bonfire (Ac.28:4), where the local folks first assumed that dike (“vengeance” or “justice”) had caught up with an evil person, and then changed their minds and decided that he must be a god! So quickly does people’s perception change!
The same word in Jude 7, applied to Sodom, can be interpreted more in line with prevailing stereotypes, but in Ac.25:15, it is simply a demand for a legal verdict.
In virtually every case, “to do or accomplish justice” would be a much clearer expression of the lexical meaning of the words.

How, then, did both translators and interpreters become so obsessed with vindictiveness, and (often cruel) vengeance? I think the answer has at least two components.

One clue may be found in the vocabulary of the LXX – the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This would make it one of the many errors which have at least a partial source in the reluctance on the part of many well-meaning people to realize that since Jesus came, THINGS HAVE CHANGED!!! Consequently, they treat both testaments as if they were equivalent – which they are not. (See #148). But even so, it should be clear that most of the references, especially to the defeat of enemies, are recorded from the perspective of the Israelite kings and heroes. Only Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a few of the minor prophets attribute destruction to the act of God – and for them, it is usually his judgment on their own nation, much more frequently than upon others. This, however, could be a partial source of the threats levied by members of ecclesiastical hierarchies to keep their (perceived) underlings subservient to their pronouncements.

Secondly, please remember that English translations were made more than a thousand years after the writing of the texts – well after the codification of “doctrines” and the rise of the hierarchical structures – and they were made, for the most part, at the behest of the powerful, to reinforce their dominance. (Have you ever read the introduction to the King James Version? I was shocked, when challenged to do so!) Threats, both “temporal” and “eternal” are a great way to do this.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that the concept of “punishment” does exist, although rarely, in the presence of two word groups which are correctly translated in that way.

Timoreo, used only twice (Ac.22:5 and 26:11), refers to the persecution inflicted upon believers by Paul, before his conversion. Its noun counterpart, timoria, occurs only in Heb.10:9, a warning against overtly disparaging the Lord Jesus. A prefixed form, epitimia, also occurring only a single time, refers to the discipline of an erring brother (II Cor.2:6).

Of the other group, kolazo (Ac.4:21) refers to the Sanhedrin trying to figure out what to do with the apostles (how to “punish” them), but only once (II Pet.2:9) is it attributed to God. Its noun equivalent, kolasis, is used of the lot of those who had exercised no compassion (Mt.25:46). This is the only place where it appears with aionion (“eternal” – an uncertain translation – see #28) besides the Jude 7 use with dike.

Much of the threatening “evangelical” (gross misnomer) rhetoric makes lurid use of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk.16:19-31), in which not one of these words appears! I will not attempt here to exegete that whole story, but will simply note its parallel to the Matthew 25 passage. In neither parable is any reference made either to what anyone “believed” or to any flagrant wickedness! All are judged simply for their lack of compassionate action.

There remains one admonition, however, that is worthy of note, regardless of whether ekdikesis is interpreted as “vengeance” or as simple justice. It is the quote from Dt.32:35 in both Rom.12:19 and Heb.10:30, and addressed, in theme, in Jesus’ parable in Lk.18:7,8: that “vengeance / justice” is the responsibility of GOD, and not of the wronged individual. Although the Old Testament refers frequently to kings, warriors, or others, wreaking “vengeance” upon their enemies, there is no such reference in the New Testament! All three reports in the Revelation – ekdikeo in 6:10 and 19:2, and krino in 18:20 – are the proprietary action of God, as are the assurances given by both Peter and Paul, noted above, of the eventual triumph of Jesus’ Kingdom.

Please note that this is NOT to excuse his people from their obligation to act in justice, and to seek it for others (see #3); but neither is it a license to usurp God’s sovereign prerogative to judge and to act.

For the citizens of his Kingdom, these words, like so many others that have been incorrectly used, are intended not as a threat, but as loving encouragement, as reassurance that under the sovereignty of our King, the eventual outcome will be consummately just and fair. We just need to leave it in his hands.

Thanks be to God!

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